The Uruguayan author Mario Levrero died in 2014, leaving behind an expansive, mostly untranslated body of work. Empty Words, a new translation by Annie McDermott out now from Coffee House Books, offers a tantalizing look at his strange and prodigious talent.
Levrero was best known for his surrealist absurdism, including his debut, La Ciudad. He contributed to magazines and newspapers over the course of his career, championing a distinctly Oulipian bent towards constraint and task-oriented writing. He was always funny, and mocked the self-serious, as described in his last project: selections of literary advice from his workshops, designated as a “Writing Manual for Dummies.” He was a poet of the list and catalog, advising to always make a list of disorganized items, and then seek out the structure.
For Empty Words, he turned this humorous gaze on a study of handwriting prevalent across South America in the second half of the 20th Century called Graphology.
Empty Words is strange in the best ways. It describes a mopey author as he journals his attempts to use “graphological self-therapy” to improve his personality. The text is split between two sections. The first has sporadic notes, with Levrero in an apparent conversation with his PC, full of repetition and double meaning. The second details this graphological self-therapy more explicitly.
He begins in candid earnestness, “The method (suggested a while ago by a crazy friend) stems from the notion — which is central to graphology — that there’s a profound connection between a person’s handwriting and his or her character, and from the behaviorist tenet that changes in behavior can lead to changes on a psychological level.” And then it quickly gets zany: “I’m a naughty boy. I haven’t done my homework for days. I haven’t showered for days, either. I smell terrible.”
The exercises trend literary as the author describes his anxiety about moving in with his girlfriend and obsessively watches the exploits of a cat and dog. Such happenings become oversized foils to his simple constraints. And the text is expansive, bringing moments of quick lyricism: “Over the past few days spring has sprung, or rather it’s loudly announced its presence all over the place. Our garden is teeming with plants we didn’t plant…there’s a proliferation of insects and feverish activity among the ants.”
One of the principle paradoxes in the text is the author’s contradictory sensations of being part of a thinking body that ages. He criticizes his body, even mocking the notion of self-improvement in his defamations. Throughout the book, there’s a general tongue-in-cheek skepticism towards the idea of positive thinking, even as the author claws at solutions for his depression and the ravages of age.
In the translator’s note, Annie McDermott notes that in Latin America, “Chile produces poets, Argentina produces short story writers, Mexico produces novelists, and Uruguay produces “los raros” — the strange ones. Levrero was a raro of the highest order, though he rejected the label. “It would be far more interesting for them if, instead of writing, I committed a murder,” he grumbled in a famous “imaginary interview,” he conducted with himself. In Uruguay, they also joke that there are two kinds of writers, those that grew up reading Mario Benedetti and those that grew up reading Mario Levrero.
Levrero has a singular wit that McDermott captures with a light touch. The novel is very funny. Beyond the premise of grapho-therapy, Levrero often describes his dreams calling up George Perec and Helene Cixous:
Yesterday I noticed that the days when I have messy hand-writing are also the days when I smoke considerably more cigarettes than usual. Conclusion: bad handwriting is caused by anxiety. Now I just have to work out what causes the anxiety, but that will be easier thanks to a dream I had the other day. The dream, or part of the dream, involved a vague narrative relating to a war and various soldiers or policemen I had to hide from. But the main story line was about some bicycles my parents were thinking of selling, which belonged to me.
Levrero was self-conscious of the notion of repeating incantations to hypnotize a reader. Or using the incantation to create a spell. And even through a finished product he highlights the exercise of taking down notes, writing out thoughts and ideas. Empty Words always returns to the notion of this exercise.
In his 2014 bravura examination of the Oulipo and literary constraint, Exercises in Criticism, Louis Bury investigated this notion of “the exercise” explicitly, as he wrote a chapter in the timbre of Queneau’s Exercises in Style. He began with the simple conceit, “The notion of the exercise is fundamental to Oulipian writing praxis.” And then, he applies various styles and lexical vocabularies to interrogate the premise and hammer the idea home in tongue-in-cheek pyrotechnics.
“Compound-words: The heavy-duty writing-notion of the exercise-text tune-up is well-nigh the centerpiece of a constraint-based work-out praxis-ethic.”
“Equation: Oulipian writing praxis=exercise”
“Text Message: r u goin 2 libry 2day 2 xrsize? :)”
“Anagram: Within intimate expanses, Oulipo finds an exotic trail of noir urge.”
Throughout the book, Bury uses constraint based literary techniques to chart the practice across time. He focuses on the Oulipo, and then moves away, citing the influence of the workshop on contemporary writers. And, as the previous excerpts demonstrate, exercises define constraint based literature; their practice was adopted by poets and novelists alike, focusing on the impossible language that emerges from aleatory encounters. All this and more is present in Levrero’s practice, and in Empty Words.
If the surrealists believed that the quickest route to new worlds came from automatism and the ghostly hand, the Oulipo championed the notion of binding. Constraint against language described the subterranean fissures and fault lines exposing another country.
One of the primary traditions of the Latin American Boom, came to be called “Magical Realism.” And that voice, now familiar almost to a fault, differs slightly from that of Levrero, whose practice descends more centrally from Blanchot, Kafka, and the dark satires of the Soviet Avant Garde. In the translator’s introduction to Empty Words, McDermott mentions that Levrero cites Mandrake the Magician, a comic strip character who employed hypnotism against villains, as a major influence. And in an interview Levrero said the purpose of art, “is to create a kind of machine to hypnotize another person to transmit experiences or experiences that do not translate into perceptible facts.”
Levrero believes in the incantatory, the experimental tradition of magic, and the avant garde. He’s an important voice within this tradition, and his “graphological-self therapy” offers readers another way of seeing. Strange and delightful.